Bernadette Peters

Theatre Royal, April 2 

Bernadette res
Photo: Kurt Sneddon.

Perhaps it is a matter of personality as much as voice: a natural warmth and an instinct for never exaggerating the emotional content of a song. Whatever the case it is easy to see and hear why, for 30 years, Bernadette Peters has probably been musical theatre’s finest performer. This is an accolade she may carry for some time to come, too, given that the female leads to emerge in her wake nearly all tend to shriek. If the Peters way of singing is now considered old-fashioned let’s turn back the clock.

Equally obvious was why she has been the preeminent interpreter of the work of Stephen Sondheim, the last half century’s most important writer of musicals. A wisp of huskiness lends her already girlish voice a naivety that perfectly complements Sondheim’s knowing lyrics and even more knowing music. At a stroke she dilates meanings and has fresh implications flaring from every line. She even breathed new life into Send In The Clowns. Rather than make it emotionally swollen (as so many do) Peters contracted it, delicately squeezing out its essence like toothpaste from a near-empty tube.

Across the night she seldom deployed the considerable power still at her disposal as she fronted an 11-piece orchestra expertly directed by her long-term accompanist Marvin Laird, preferring to make her high notes diaphanous, as on No One Is Alone from Into The Woods.

Her buoyant, charming sense of humour not only underscored a Sondheim number like You Could Drive A Person Crazy (from Company), but also fizzed during There Is Nothing Like A Dame (South Pacific) and a funny/sexy Fever.

The secret that makes Peters so good also makes her sound half her age. In fact one has to work hard to find a criticism. Perhaps the two songs from Follies, In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing My Mind, could have been programmed later in the show. They were extraordinarily affecting – in her understated way.